TrueHoop: Oklahoma City Thunder
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsRoy Hibbert isn't the only reason the Pacers have the NBA's best defense.
A tricky thing about basketball is that it's tough to know what's happening on defense. So tough that credit and blame are almost impossible to hand out from afar.
Back in the days of isolation basketball, maybe you could say, with some confidence, that Mark Jackson just scored on John Starks and that's that.
But nowadays, by the time Kevin Durant gets to the rim, the primary defender was supposed to force him to the baseline instead of the middle, but he got to the middle anyway because he's Kevin Durant. The big man was supposed to meet Durant as he arrived near the hoop, but that big man has also been drilled to close out on the wide-open 3-point shooter he has left to be here. So he's a half-step farther away, and all that together created a tiny seam, which is all Durant needs.
You could probably watch a play like that and figure out good ways to blame all five defenders, or their coach, for the Durant bucket.
It's tricky stuff. And yet we can't ignore it -- indeed it really is half the game.
Offense is easy, by comparison. So many little things have long been tracked on offense -- who shot the ball, who passed it to them before they shot it and whether it was a 3 or a 2 have always been fundamental to recording a game. That stuff has always been in highlights and box scores. It's public, searchable and well-known. In the last decade, our understanding of all that has only grown with many new measures.
It's not hard to get a sense, at a glance, who can score.
On defense, though, wow. It used to be that notoriously noisy adjusted plus/minus was the go-to measure, but that's not readily publicly available anymore. There are SportVU cameras in the sky at every arena this season, but it takes a dozen hours of Zach Lowe or Kirk Goldsberry sifting to glean anything conclusive from them. Haralabos Voulgaris has long been tracking this stuff, but his database is private. In other words, it's tricky even to find out the most basic things such as which players were on the darned court when the other team scored most efficiently.
Which means making an evidence-based case that one player or another is awesome at defense is tough -- or nearly impossible this early in the season, when the sample sizes are small.
But we're not entirely without tools. And we do have lineup data, and the fact is there are combinations of players against whom it is crazy tough to score. Whether or not those players are the cause of the other team's bad offense, it's too soon to say. But if I were looking for players who are making it happen on defense, here are some names for the early season short list.
The resurrection of the pioneering NBA Israeli's game has been told as one of stroking 3s and attacking the rim.
But something is certainly happening on defense, too, which may overshadow all of that.
With Casspi on the floor, the Rockets have given up 94.8 points per 100 possessions, which is almost as good as the league-leading Pacers. When he's on the bench, the team has given up 104.1 points per 100 possessions, which is pedestrian.
The defensive bottom line is that the Rockets have gotten 9.3 points worse on D when Casspi checks out. The number could be thick with early-season noise, but it's eye-opening nonetheless.
Looking at two-man combinations, you can see that almost any Rocket with Casspi is effective. With Terrence Jones and Casspi in, the Rockets only give up 85.8 points per 100 possessions. With Patrick Beverley: a stingy 90.6. Seven of the top 12 Rockets defensive combinations feature Casspi. Dwight Howard appears in that list only once ... with Casspi. Meanwhile, there aren't many Rocket lineups that perform well on D without Casspi.
It's possible his defensive qualities are overstated by these stats. But I don't think it's possible he's bad on defense.
I'd also suggest it's a long shot the plus/minus obsessed Rockets are eager to sit him. Casspi is also helping the team on offense. Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons have been similarly effective. Which makes you wonder, as Omer Asik trade rumors heat up ... does it really make sense to trade for a shooting forward such as Ryan Anderson? Maybe so, but if playing Anderson means limiting minutes for Casspi, Jones or Parsons, it's tough to imagine the Rockets getting more effective in the process.
The Pistons' rookie hasn't gotten much attention this season, and rookie guards almost never have good defensive statistics.
But a quarter into the season, Caldwell-Pope looks like an exception.
The list of the NBA's top three-man defensive units so far this season are largely Pacers, as we'll discuss. At the time of this writing, nine of the top 25 are from Indiana, in fact. Which means players on 29 rosters are competing for the 16 remaining spots. So when I tell you that Caldwell-Pope is on the list five times himself, with a grab bag of Pistons ... well, something is up.
Worth noting: The Pistons, generally, aren't even good at D, ranking 20th in the league.
Dan Feldman and Rob Mahoney have both dug into this phenomenon recently. The gist is that the Pistons started the season terribly on defense, when Caldwell-Pope never played. They got a little better all in all, and then Chauncey Billups -- who has been terrible on defense at this age -- got hurt. So Caldwell-Pope earned his minutes by replacing a bad defender and while joining a lineup that was finding its feet.
He's also, to the naked eye, a wiry and active defender who gets around screens far more effectively than Billups or Rodney Stuckey.
Caldwell-Pope has played close to 500 minutes, during which time the Pistons have given up a stingy 96.9 points per 100 possessions.
When he has sat, Pistons are allowing 108.4. The difference is 11.5, at least some of which, you'd think, has to do with the fact that this rookie guard is living up to his predraft reputation as a committed defender.
It's a closely guarded secret that the Bobcats are good at something, but today their defense is fourth best in the league, just after the Bulls and just ahead of the Heat and Thunder. But line up the NBA's best defensive player combinations in terms of points allowed per possession, and Kidd-Gilchrist's long and noticeable name is all over the place. There are three four-man Bobcats lineups with MKG that play better defense than the best four-man combination of Indiana Pacers. If you rank the whole league's best two-man defensive combinations, the top five pairs are all Pacers -- except for Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson, who are third in the whole NBA in that ranking.
Kidd-Gilchrist, who is out with a broken finger at the moment, has played nearly 500 minutes this season, during which time the Bobcats have basically been the Pacers, with a 94.8 points per 100 possessions. When he's on the bench, they give up more than 100.
This is fascinating. Durant is famous as a scorer and was not long ago derided for sub-par defense. Jackson is a guy who can create his own shot. But they can, evidently, make you feel them on defense.
When opponents have the ball, Durant and Jackson have been, by the numbers, a top-10 NBA defensive duo. And it's not a simple case of the Thunder being great at defense. It's worth considering it might be something about this combination. One of the best five-man defensive units in the NBA (minimum 50 minutes played) is Durant and Jackson with Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. That lineup is one of the Thunder's most used and has an incredible defensive rating of 78.3. At the moment, if you substitute Westbrook in for Jackson, you have one of the Thunder's most familiar lineups, and one that gives up 103.3 points. The Westbrook lineup faces the best opponents and would be expected to perform a little worse. But 25 points per 100 possessions is a massive difference.
It's also noteworthy that lots of Thunder players have great defensive ratings when they're on the floor. Jackson, though, is the standout for whom, thus far, sitting has led the team to play much worse defense. Could be a fluke. Worth keeping an eye on.
Related: Put defense and offense together, and Durant and Jackson are, at the moment, literally the best-performing duo in the whole NBA.
The other Pacers
We know Roy Hibbert is really good at defense. We know his Pacers have been one of the best defenses ever thus far. When Kevin Pelton (Insider) wrote about this the other day, he pointed out that the Pacers were giving up fewer than 94 points per 100 possessions in a league that averages 106. No other team is close. So the Pacers are killing it.
And as I just dug through NBA.com/stats looking at player combinations, there's no arguing Hibbert is the dominant reason. In fact, if you take every two-player combination in the league, from every team, the best combination out of all of those thousands, in terms of holding opponents to the fewest points per possession, is the Pacers' Roy Hibbert and David West.
In and of itself, that does not prove they are the two best defenders. Far from it. But it would be just about impossible for them to be so high on the list while being lousy at defense. And that they belong there is affirmed by this: The second best combination out of the whole league? Hibbert and Paul George. Fourth best is Hibbert and George Hill. Amazingly, Pacers account for nine of the league's dozen most effective two-player defensive combinations, and Hibbert is part of most of 'em.
Just as it's impossible to argue Hibbert is anything but great on defense, it's also impossible to argue that he's the only reason the Pacers are good. The Pacers' center is only playing 30 minutes a game, and the Pacers are good on defense all night.
This is not a question of the starting five carrying everybody. None of the Pacers' five-man lineups, in fact, are in the league's 10 most effective defensively. It really is a team effort.
When Hibbert is on the bench, the Pacers give up 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which would still be a top-10 NBA defense.
Of course, George, who has been discussed as a candidate as both MVP and a first-team all-NBA defense, is a big part of that. Even though he's the epicenter of the Pacers' offense -- in a role where many players would catch their breath on defense -- George expends serious energy guarding some of the league's finest scorers. Despite those challenges, he's still a mainstay among the Pacers' best defensive combinations. When George sits, opponents score a little better than when Hibbert sits.
But you know who else has been on the floor for long minutes of great defense for the Pacers? Almost everybody. David West, C.J. Watson, George Hill, Orlando Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Luis Scola -- these are not the Pacers' most famous defenders. I have named eight Pacers in this article. Put any three of those players together on the court, and Pacers are playing good defense.
When any or all of them are on the court, the Pacers as a team average better defensive performance than the Spurs, who are the league's second-best defensive team.
It's almost impossible to find any combination of Pacers players that is bad on defense. It's amazing. (3-point specialist Chris Copeland might be the one exception. He has not been great on defense, the statistics say, but he is also new to the team and has averaged less than four minutes a game, so it's hard to know what the future holds for him.)
Clearly, coach Frank Vogel knows something.
Special to ESPN.com
When the franchise formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, they brought with them a terrible basketball team. The Sonics were 20-62 in their final season, in the basement of the Western Conference, and a combined 66-98 in the two seasons prior. But what they did have was promise. At least that was the pitch to the new, unassuming fan base. Hang in there, bear with us and maybe by 2013 or 2014, this team could be kind of not terrible.
But the Thunder's first four seasons were much more than that: a combined winning percentage of .679, four playoff berths, three division titles, two trips to the Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals appearance.
With that immediate, almost overwhelming success, the team established a unique brand power and fostered an incredible culture in Oklahoma. After taking the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers to six games in their first playoff series in 2010, the state was in love. No longer merely a novelty or a seasonal distraction from college football, the Thunder were something you could really embrace.
But with success comes expectation. And with expectation its ugly cousin, entitlement. Pretty soon, "We're just happy to be here" becomes, "We want to win now." And it isn’t just the fans -- the national media has started asking pointed questions, too. And when real-life results have fallen short of expectations, the Thunder love has cooled.
After a freak injury to Russell Westbrook derailed their once-promising 2012-13 season, the Thunder’s perception has drastically changed. General manager Sam Presti is no longer the boy genius. The "Thunder Model" no longer looks like such a sure thing. The Thunder once seemed infallible, the team all other teams should try to emulate. But that’s clearly no longer the case.
On Sunday night, from Haralabos Voulgaris: "Really hope KD bolts OKC when he can, OKC ownership definitely doesn’t deserve him." ESPN.com's Marc Stein retweeted Voulgaris, tacking on, "Flammable one, but getting harder to argue." Recently on “NBA Countdown,” Bill Simmons called the Thunder a "mom-and-pop organization." For Oklahomans, who obsess over the national perspective of the team, these kinds of statements cut deep.
Identifying the origin of this new perspective on the Thunder really isn't hard -- Oct. 28, 2012, the night they traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder offered Harden, then a year away from restricted free agency, a significant extension, one that would've made him the highest paid sixth man in NBA history, but he rightfully wanted a bigger role and more money. It’s a decision that hasn’t worked out too badly for him, either.
When Harden departed for Houston, Oklahoma City lost more than his significant production. He also took the team’s innocence. After four years of riding the good times to the top of the standings, the trade was the official "welcome to professional sports" moment for a new fan base, and its fallout is still rippling down the Oklahoma prairie. People still aren't over it, and they may never be. Something was taken from them -- not necessarily Harden, but the chance to really see what that Thunder team could do.
But with success comes expectation. And with expectation its ugly cousin, entitlement. Pretty soon, 'We're just happy to be here' becomes, 'We want to win now.'”
Outside the arena before Sunday’s game against the Suns, a fan approached me -- we do casual encounters with strangers in Oklahoma City. After exchanging introductions, the first thing he said was, "I think I'm ready to hit the panic button."
The Thunder were 1-1.
But let’s take a broader perspective. Here's the current state of the Thunder: With Westbrook back -- and not just back, but back -- they have a roster that won 60 games last season, finished atop the Western Conference, logged a near-historic margin of victory, finished in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency and features the best player in the NBA not named LeBron James. The only significant subtraction was Kevin Martin, who was quietly effective in his lone season with the team after coming over in the Harden deal. And if losing the reigning sixth man of the year didn’t slow the Thunder down, will losing this sixth man really do it?
The clock on when they will reach such lofty expectations appears to be ticking, though. After bowing out in the second round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder, fearing the repeater tax, chose to invest in the development of their young talent rather than spend in free agency. The approach was an affront to those hoping for a splashy move that signaled they were really taking advantage of their championship window, and for some, it officially began the countdown to Kevin Durant’s free agency in 2016.
The Thunder are guaranteed three more seasons with Durant, and four with Westbrook. The fear of either leaving for another city is unspoken, but real. Oklahomans don't want to admit it, but the whole state suffers from a "little man's complex." For one of their cherished stars to leave on his own choosing would be the most traumatizing event since Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines. That anxiety brought on by the future unknown has taken Presti's process and placed a spotlight squarely on the present.
The Thunder have avoided the luxury tax, but that has less to do with the current finances and more about the future bottom line. They aren't philosophically opposed to paying the tax -- OKC was willing to dip about $9 million into it with its final offer to Harden -- but they are fearful of the repeater tax. And with three seasons guaranteed left with Durant, having the house in order for the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016 was more important than breaking over the tax threshold this season for a player like Dorell Wright or J.J. Redick.
Still, fans are fickle, especially once they get a taste of winning. Four years ago, everyone in OKC could recite Presti's talking points -- process, sustainability, development, patience. Now, those same fans have dropped the message and are now saying things like "title or bust."
The process Presti preached has been accelerated, but the goal remains -- a championship-level team in a small market. That's the overlooked part of Presti's sustainability propaganda. The idea with that isn't to just be a decent team for the next 10 years. It's to win 10 straight championships. And if you're going to do that, you have to have 10 outstanding teams. It's simple probabilities: The more bullets you have in your gun, the more opportunities there are to hit your target. The Westbrook injury resuscitated the anxiety over the Harden trade, but it should've reshaped things the other way. Certain events aren’t predictable. And if your plan is to "go for it" for one season or two, you're a torn meniscus away from it all falling apart, and more devastatingly, you might have to spend the next six or seven seasons trying to dig out of that short-term decision.
So as expectations in Oklahoma City grow larger, the collective patience is stretching thin. The taste of winning and visions of raising a banner have clouded everyone’s vision and acceptance of the original plan. But their ascendancy was always probably a little misleading, or at least misunderstood. This has always been a process and one that really, still remains right on track.
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James Harden helped his career tremendously by insisting on being a leading man.
When discussing the James Harden trade, the main focus is normally on Oklahoma City. It’s about whether they lost big, whether there’s still time for them to emerge victorious from a now-infamous deal. Even in a league that celebrates brilliant individualism, transactions are viewed through a team lens. A “good contract” is rarely good for the player, for instance.
We’ve been through the implications in Oklahoma, so I’d rather parse what the trade meant for Houston’s rising superstar. Not only did Harden make an extra $24 million by spurning Sam Presti’s last, best offer, but he also received a giant boost in status.
While I’m certain his 2012 Sixth Man award was gratifying, that plaudit is likely trumped by this year’s All-Star and All-NBA selections. Over the course of a season Harden surged from No. 26 in #NBArank to No. 4. In the annual survey of NBA general managers, Harden surpassed Kobe Bryant as the league’s best shooting guard.
What’s funny about Harden’s reputational ascendance is that it’s difficult to prove he got any better between last season and this season. His Win Shares per 48 minutes declined, and his moderate boost in PER can be ascribed to more shots taken. Under greater defensive scrutiny, his true shooting dipped a whole six percentage points. On many defensive possessions, the closest thing to Harden moving toward an assignment was his beard’s slow growth in that general direction.
This isn’t at all to say Harden had a bad season; he was a free throw machine whose overall success was instrumental in wooing Dwight Howard from Los Angeles. It’s just that the extra praise had more to do with Harden’s increased floor time and opportunity than his improvement as a player. Before, Harden was underrated, his super-efficient production obscured by far fewer minutes and touches than a star of his caliber usually receives.
Once a player is locked into a certain kind of role, it’s hard for NBA observers to envision that player in a different role. Daryl Morey wisely didn’t fret over whether Harden could handle being “the man” in an offense, instead trusting that a former bench player would continue to be himself as a starter. Harden was so efficient as a super sub that he could afford to be a little less efficient in a bigger role.
Another All-NBA team, another All-Star Game, and Harden will have equaled stylistic twin Manu Ginobili’s individual awards resume. Not only does Manu serve as an apt player comparison for Harden, but he also offers a glimpse into where Harden’s career might have been headed.
Per minute, Manu’s production has been on par with Kobe’s -- the Argentine leads in win shares rate and trails slightly in PER. Would Manu be considered Kobe’s equal had he averaged 37 minutes over his career? This is unknowable, in part because an oft-used Manu very well could have been an oft-injured Manu. But Harden gives a good indication as to what a season of Manu would have looked like on another roster. Such a season might not have been on the level of late-aughts Kobe, but would have almost certainly resulted in more fame than Manu’s been accustomed to.
I actually suspect that Harden will receive more renown than Manu ever did while never being quite as good as Manu was. This is amusing to consider when, just a year ago, Harden was being chided for ignoring legacy considerations. The framing was that, by leaving a contender, the league’s best sixth man was consigning himself to a kind of ringless obscurity.
Instead, it's the opposite. Even after getting bounced from the playoffs by his old team, Harden is more famous and more highly thought of than ever before. Sports pundits reward players for winning titles, but we’re also quite reductive in assigning credit for those titles. Kobe fans wear “5 rings” shirts as though the fact Kobe won rings matters more than anything about the Lakers. A “Whose team is it?!” culture means Kevin Durant would have gotten more than the lion’s share of lauding for hypothetical Thunder championships. Harden would have been an extra in the film about KD's career. Leaving a contender was Harden’s chance to salvage a legacy, not destroy it.
Much as the media derides players for their selfishness, we’re also the ones who handsomely reward selfishness. When faced with accepting a below-market deal and a continued bench role, Harden sided with his own interests, faced some criticism, and put himself in the express lane to lavish praise. The lesson is that “being the man” isn't some silly fixation of the selfish athlete. The role has real, positive consequences on how you'll be considered and remembered.
Sounds like Kevin Durant was amused to hear ESPN's Jalen Rose predicting that Durant will leave Oklahoma City as a free agent in the summer of 2016 to join the Houston Rockets.
Sounds like Durant is realistic, too.
Impossible as it is to try to project where Durant's contentment, accomplishments, loyalty, wanderlust and free-agent options will intersect three summers from now, Durant surely gets it. Like it or not, Oklahoma City's season is going to be all about how Durant feels about where the Thunder are and where they're headed ... and about us media pests raising and re-raising those questions.
This season and the next two, frankly.
"Unfortunately," Durant said, acknowledging in an interview with The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry that this Rose-inspired storyline isn't about to go away.
Unless the three-time scoring champ and new agent Jay-Z decide to pursue an extension at some stage, that's the uncomfortable but unavoidable truth about Durant's situation as he enters his seventh season.
Whether it's Russell Westbrook's problematic knee or the fact that the Thunder have to this point only replaced James Harden with the unproven Jeremy Lamb, rookie big man Steven Adams and a trade exception created via Kevin Martin's free-agent departure, Oklahoma City is fighting the perception/fear that it has fallen farther away from title contention since losing to Miami in the 2012 Finals when it's supposed to be closing the gap.
Also: This, fair or not, is just what we do with the game's greatest one-man corporations ... especially those found outside of the league's glamour markets. The frenzy surrounding LeBron James' first foray into free agency in 2010 started bubbling up regularly in 2008. Durant, as the NBA's undisputed second-best player, has to know he's going to get us all frothing on a similar timeline.
The good news for the Thunder is that Durant isn't just starting to fill out physically. Judging by the calm responses he gave after catching Rose's video chat with Grantland founder Bill Simmons, KD gives the impression that he can shoulder the added burden of endless speculation about his future. Even this far out.
The Thunder, though, would be wise not to relax. The odd hints from the 25-year-old over the past few months that suggest he's starting to get antsy about winning his first ring -- be it Durant announcing on media day that he's "starting to get up there" or the uncharacteristic way he abruptly ended an interview in July when asked about OKC's summer -- have to make his bosses wonder in moments of weakness.
Rest assured that the next three years, without a championship or a new Durant deal, will be the longest for them.
Players should rate players..just like the nfl do..these analysts never played at this level before! Just being real— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) October 16, 2013
The tweet might be in reference to Kobe Bryant coming in at No. 25 on #NBArank, or it might be a more general statement. In any event, it’s a sentiment many athletes share.
This is an old argument, often rebutted during the days when “Moneyball” was considered an affront to the baseball establishment. The rebuttals aren't especially difficult to come up with. In the basketball world, Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas have done much to dispel the notion that only jocks can accurately assess jocks.
But I don’t want to argue with Durant, even if I do disagree with him. I’d rather talk about why NBA players feel this way, and how their feelings aren’t just wrapped up in ego. NBA players know more than we do.
Let’s start with the locker room white board, a document I’m not allowed to take pictures of or discuss with readers in any specific capacity. That’s fine, because, man, would readers be bored by what’s up there. It’s a mix of inscrutable jargon and motivational pablum. Maybe the jargon would make sense to some of you, but I doubt it’d connect with most. It looks like instructions on how to fly an alien spaceship. Actually, that’s too cool a description. It looks like instructions on how to install a stereo on an alien spaceship.
I often saunter up to players and ask that they explain this or that on the board. Except I’m not really asking that they explain. I’m asking that they translate the foreign language that looks all the more foreign because coaches write as if they’re stabbing the board to death.
After doing this for a while, I came to realize how mashed together the whole NBA lexicon is. There are multiple phrases for how defenses “ice” a screen, for instance. Even if the words describe roughly all the same stuff, the jargon can be team-specific. Nobody ever sat down and unified basketball’s language. Not only does an experienced NBA vet know concepts you don’t, he also knows wholly different vocabularies for those concepts based on his time with different teams.
These guys are professionals not just in terms of talent, but also in terms of knowledge. Basketball is a craft, and the players do a lot more thinking about their craft than performing it for us.
When I was first in the locker room, I got such boring and banal answers to questions -- you could kind of see why people have the notion that NBA players are stupid. It took a shift in topic -- to game strategy -- for the intellect to reveal itself. Ask a guy, “How’d it feel to hit that shot?” and you’ll get some barely coherent false humility. Ask a guy, “Why’d you go away from side pick-and-roll?” and you might get a dizzying dissertation.
“How’d it feel to hit that shot?” gets a terrible answer in part because it’s really hard to sound smart in response to a stupid question. Imagine if great scientists got such questions. “So how’s the lab’s confidence? Will you ride this momentum to the Nobel Prize? How’d it feel to get that federal grant?”
Thankfully, fans and media are smartening up, looking for coverage that’s a little more in-depth than “they just wanted it more.” There’s also a large contingent of viewers and readers who don’t want basketball to be about that at all. They don’t want to conceive of a game that’s decided by a bloodless mix of strategy and luck. They want an opera, wherein the hungriest, angriest, most confident star seizes victory through sheer force of will.
So there’s a lot of incentive to make basketball about something that it isn’t -- something simple and dramatic rather than intricate and nerdy. I once asked Richard Jefferson about whether he was bothered by the information gap between what players know and what the media says. His response: “No, we get that you’re basically writing for seventh-graders.”
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you passed the seventh grade long ago, but there’s something to the idea that sports fandom taps into a middle school id. I’ve seen doctors and lawyers represent themselves like seventh-graders when hollering about their favorite team. I didn’t think Jefferson was being entirely fair, but I also understood his perspective. I don’t think Durant is being entirely fair, but I understand his perspective.
In the past I’d look at a comment like Durant’s and assume he meant that media can’t judge because we lacked visceral experience of what it’s like to jump that high, run that fast or dunk that hard. I’d probably get annoyed because such kinesthetic experience is pretty worthless as basketball commentary. Also, it just sounds like bragging. Yes, I get it, you can do things your critics can’t. You’re the man in the arena, and we’re not. Don’t you get enough praise?
Now I see Durant’s comment as something different. We haven’t studied what he’s studied, read the scouting he’s read, learned the schemes he’s learned. There’s a knowledge gap between us, and KD justifiably believes he’s more informed to make such choices.
I still think he’s wrong that only players can really weigh in. There’s value in the writer’s detachment. We also just have more time to think globally about the league as Durant travels the globe. Players might put too much stock in a peer’s ability to perfect a niche skill that they themselves can’t ever seem to add. The impact of, say, defensive big men could get underrated because so few NBA players -- they're mostly guards and wings -- can relate well to the role of someone like Omer Asik.
Based on those considerations, combined with the experience of watching players occasionally rank each other, I trust the writers at places such as Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and here at ESPN. Durant might react to that with “What does he know?”
And the answer to that rhetorical question would be: “Not much, compared to Kevin Durant.”
- Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Reggie Jackson is expected to serve as the emergency starter in Westbrook's absence, as he did in the Thunder's final nine playoff games following Westbrook's injury. Beyond that, though, the Thunder's first month and a half has suddenly become one big mystery. Is Jackson, who as of Tuesday morning still was projected to be the team's sixth man, now ready for a starring role? Can Kevin Durant effectively carry the load with defenses loaded up and locked in on him? How much does Derek Fisher, now 39, have left in the tank to offer as the presumable backup point guard? How good is Jeremy Lamb? Does Brooks have a backup plan? The Thunder's early-season success hinges largely on how these questions are answered. But the organization, from Thunder general manager Sam Presti to Brooks to Durant, pointed to last year's postseason as a steppingstone that prepared the Thunder for this situation and now stands as a source of confidence.
- Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: With the news that Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook would miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season because of a second knee surgery, the Rockets looked ahead to his return, rather than the play in which he was injured. Westbrook went out in Game 2 of the Rockets’ playoff series against Oklahoma City when Rockets guard Patrick Beverley collided with him while attempting a steal as Westbrook was calling time out. That inspired an angry on-court reaction from Westbrook and a backlash from Oklahoma City fans that escalated to death threats. “He’s a great athlete,” Beverley said. “I know he has the best doctors. I think he’s going to be fine. Our focus is on this upcoming season and for us to get better as a team.”
- Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald: If this were football or baseball, there would be some debate about which is the player to beat for the title, "Greatest of All Time." In basketball, there's not. LeBron James clearly has his sights set on the guy locked in perpetual flight on the east side of the United Center. "I feel like I have the potential to continue to get better and to maximize my time while I play this game of basketball," James added. "I want to be the greatest." James is no dummy. He knows there's a long way to go before surpassing Michael Jordan. Winning championships was a necessary step and he's done that. I've always claimed there's no point trying to compare James and Jordan, because they are different players. Jordan was an alpha dog scorer who always had the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Kobe Bryant is a better comparison for Jordan. Bryant gave it a good shot, but he's not going to surpass MJ as the greatest of all time. James is a stellar distributor who probably compares better to Scottie Pippen in style of play. Of course, James has gone way beyond Pippen's offensive capabilities. Instead of praising James for being a brilliant team player, he gets criticized for not being Jordan. But with these comments, James has invited those comparisons himself.
- Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times: If Kobe Bryant can win a sixth title, he'll match Michael Jordan's count. While the debate of who is the best player of all time is quite subjective, it's fun to mull over. Jordan added a little fuel to the fire with his comments promoting the NBA 2K14 video game, according to the Associated Press. How would Jordan fare playing one-on-one against players like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Bryant? "I don't think I would lose," said Jordan, "other than to Kobe Bryant because he steals all my moves." Bryant gave a quick response on Twitter. Domino effect. I stole some of his..this generation stole some of mine #thecycle
- Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: It was iconic. And then it was gone. Now, apparently,LeBron James is about to again take a powder. Hidden as a hashtag on an Instagram post referencing his placement on the cover of the just released edition of theNBA 2K14 video game came this early Wednesday morning: #PowderTossComingBackToAnArenaNearYou Given up amid his turn for the serious as part of his successful bids for NBA championships the past two seasons, James can be seen on the 2K14 cover displaying the powder toss, as seen in the Instagram he sent out. … In the absence of the real thing, teammates Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller andJames Jones last season emulated James' iconic chalk toss in a pregame ritual, as James already was awaiting the pregame toss at center court. The NBA last season instituted a time limit on pregame rituals, forcing Heat guard Dwyane Wade to somewhat speed up his fullcourt fan salute, with the penalty otherwise a delay-of-game warning (the second and each subsequent of which is accompanied by a technical foul). Now, LeBron will find himself, and his powder, on the pregame clock.
- Marc Berman of the New York Post: Carmelo Anthony privately pined for a secondary scorer in the offseason. And so far, after the first practice of training camp, Anthony is talking like he has got one in the Knicks’ key offseason acquisition, Andrea Bargnani. Anthony even said he would be willing to slide over from power forward to small forward to make room in the starting lineup for the 6-foot-11 Italian. Anthony also tried taking the pressure off Bargnani, who became the scapegoat in Toronto after failing to become an All-Star after being No. 1 overall pick in 2006. “There ain’t no pressure on him,” Anthony said of Bargnani handling the move to New York. “You come in and do what you got to do and play ball. All the pressure’s on me. It should be easy for him. It should be an easy transition for him, adjusting. Just do it the right way, it should be easy for him.’’ Bargnani played just 66 of a possible 152 regular-season games the past two seasons for the Raptors, because of various injuries, prompting the June 29 trade. Bargnani said no matter what Anthony says, there always is pressure as a Knick.
- Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post: Forget 57 regular-season wins for the Nuggets. That's not going to happen. But here is the real goal for the local NBA team: No more wimpy basketball. The Nuggets have a new way to play. "Smashmouth basketball," new Denver coach Brian Shaw said. I asked Shaw to define his terms. What qualifies as smashmouth basketball? "Smashmouth means that you are literally going to get your mouth smashed if you're going against us for a rebound or a loose ball," Shaw said. "We want to have a nasty disposition, both offensively and defensively." Shaw is not a smarter coach than his predecessor, George Karl. But here's betting Shaw will be a tougher coach than Karl. Karl beat cancer. Twice. So props to him for a huge personal victory. In Denver, however, Karl's teams looked for a soft spot to land in the playoffs, and set up excuses to all but guarantee an early exit from the postseason would happen. … The Nuggets of Karl were soft. The Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies are hard. If you can't win with the talent of LeBron James, you had better be mean. Welcome to smashmouth basketball.
- Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune: Monty Williams said Tuesday he has been thinking about distribution of playing time for this group since it was assembled this summer, but seems set on having Evans, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith come off the bench with the second platoon, leaving open the point guard spot for either Austin Rivers or Brian Roberts. "I think it will become more clear as we see certain guys on the floor in practice and how they jell," said Williams. Rivers said he's not fearful about his place in the rotation, nor the amount of minutes he'll play. "You look at our team, and don't take my word for it, but I think Tyreke is going to come off the bench and I think I'm going to come off the bench," he said. "Depending on how Eric feels, I could be starting at the two. I could be starting at the two, or coming off the bench with Ryan Anderson and Tyreke. That's not a bad second group. I'm not really worried about my minutes. Me and Jrue were talking about this at dinner. Our second group is just as good as our first group." It's evident that whatever discomfort Rivers might have experienced in June has dissipated, as has any uncertainty about his place on the court. "I love my coach. I love the coaches, the new facility, new name, new team," he said.
- Tom Moore of The Intelligencer: Royce White knows he’s not physically where he wants or needs to be. But after not playing in any NBA games during his rookie year with the Rockets, at least partially due to an anxiety disorder and fear of flying, White is grateful to just be setting picks and finding open teammates at 76ers camp. “At the same time last year, I wasn’t even in training camp,” White said. “So this is a big improvement from eight, nine months ago. I’m just happy to be here right now, happy my body’s holding up.” White doesn’t know what his role with the Sixers will be. He ran with the second team during Monday’s scrimmage. But he plans to fly to Northern Spain with his Sixers teammates Thursday in preparation for Sunday’s preseason game against Bilbao. For him, that’s a start. “To me, the most important thing is making it to the first preseason game and being here for the team,” he said. Sixers coach Brett Brown has been encouraged by what he’s seen from White through four days of camp.
- Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: If third-year center Bismack Biyombo feels threatened by the Charlotte Bobcats adding big men Al Jefferson and Cody Zeller, you wouldn’t know it from his approach. Biyombo started 80 of 82 games last season, averaging 4.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. After the season, the Bobcats used the fourth pick on Zeller and signed Jefferson to a 3-year, $40.5 million contract. Biyombo likely isn’t starting this season, but he doesn’t see himself as extraneous. “My job is the same as it was last year – be a defender, protect the paint, rebound, block shots. Nothing is going to change,” he said after the first practice of training camp at UNC Asheville. The Bobcats drafted Biyombo seventh overall in 2011. He’s a long athlete and tough guy, but he arrived in Charlotte from the Spanish League with minimal offensive skill. That hasn’t changed much. New coach Steve Clifford has told Biyombo not to fret about what he can’t yet do.
- Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Jimmer Fredette would have to fend off rookie Ray McCallum just to be the third point guard behind Isaiah Thomas and Greivis Vasquez. Things aren't easier for Fredette at shooting guard by Marcus Thornton and Ben McLemore. There are possible three-guard lineups but it won't be easy cracking the rotation, regardless. What would help Fredette would be having a defined role. "We didn't know what the rotation was (last season)," Fredette said. "Guys didn't know if they were going to play one game and not the next so you just had to try to stay ready and prepare as much as you can. It's hard for players to be able to do that but you're professionals so that's what you have to do. Hopefully this year we'll have more of a set rotation so we'll know when we're going to play and who we're going to play with."
- Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: The immediate inclination is to compare Vitor Faverani to Fab Melo. Both are from Brazil and are within an inch or two height-wise, and, hey, those are some simple dots to connect even for a sportswriter. But after a brief look at this year’s model and several conversations with Celtics types at the first day of training camp, the notion was rejected. With authority. The two are said to be miles apart at this stage. “Vitor’s a player,” we were advised. “Fab’s a project.” The Celts gave up on Melo after just one year. While there may have been some salary cap concerns in his trade to Memphis, they would have held onto him if they thought he could be what they hoped. Same for the Grizzlies, who released Melo. He’s now in camp with Dallas. And while Melo reigned mainly in D-League Maine last season, Faverani could easily make his way into the Celtics rotation right away. Teams have a way of finding a place for people who shoot well and like to hit people.
- Joe Freeman of The Oregonian: Tap. Tap. Tap. It was a little after midnight when the knock on the hotel door arrived. Nicolas Batum was tired. He was frustrated. He was anxious. And he was just about ready to call it a night. But it was the evening before the European Championship title game and it was a curious time for a visit, so Batum swung open the door to see who was standing outside his room in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Staring back at him was Tony Parker, his teammate on the French national team and one of the NBA's premier point guards. Batum's friend wanted to chat. "I had messed up in the semifinals — had a baaaad game — and he came to me before the final," Batum said, recalling the unexpected face-to-face. "He said, 'Tomorrow's game is going to be your game. We need you. If we're going to win, you've got to lead us.' When a guy like that comes to you, before the biggest game of your life, and says 'you have to show the way, you have to be the man,' it gives you a lot of confidence." It was the latest in a long line of mentoring moments by Parker, and it was perhaps the most meaningful. A day later Batum answered the challenge, recording a team-high 17 points, six rebounds and two steals — while playing tenacious defense — as France beat Lithuania 80-66 to claim its first major championship
- Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Samuel Dalembert hopes to do this season for the Dallas Mavericks what Tyson Chandler was able to accomplish during the 2010-11 campaign. Chandler joined the Mavericks on July 13, 2010, via a trade with the Charlotte Bobcats. The fiery, athletic center came to Dallas as a wounded warrior, having navigated his way through a series of injuries and saddled with lingering questions about his health. However, Chandler used his hustle, grit and determination to change the Mavericks’ culture with his tenacious defense and ability to protect the rim. His contributions were extremely instrumental in the Mavs winning the 2011 NBA championship. Fast forward to Dalembert, who left the Milwaukee Bucks via free agency over the summer. While surveying the NBA landscape, he knew the Mavericks would become a perfect fit for his style of play. In essence, Dalembert (6-foot-11, 250 pounds) realized he was the right player to fill the role Chandler once occupied. “I just looked at things from last year, and this team just needed one more ingredient,” the 32-year old Dalembert said after Tuesday’s first practice of training camp. “We can score — scoring is no issue for us. “It’s just the defense and giving up second-chance opportunities.” Small forward Shawn Marion welcomes a player such as Dalembert, who can protect the rim. … Power forward Dirk Nowitzki also sees value in the Mavericks signing Dalembert to a two-year, $7.5 million contract in July.
- Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer: Power forward Tristan Thompson acknowledges that there's no blueprint for switching his dominant hand from left to right in the middle of his career. He even joked about learning more about who he is. "I'm 22,'' he said during media day on Monday. "I'm trying to figure it out.'' He said he actually is ambidextrous, writing, eating and golfing left-handed while bowling, and now shooting, right-handed. Why did he ever think he was a left-handed player? "Because I wrote with my left hand, and I thought if you write with your left hand, you've got to shoot with your left hand.''
- Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: Rudy Gay had off-season PRK laser eye surgery, and while it was only a 10-minute procedure, it was a big deal for Gay who sees clearly now. He just doesn’t know how long it has been since his vision went. “I don’t know at all,” he said when asked what his vision was corrected from. “I just know I could barely get my license, so it was pretty bad and I didn’t know it. Obviously I feel a lot better going into the season a little bit more confident.” … For now Gay is downplaying the eye procedure and how it has changed things for him. His fear is that people are going to automatically credit a 10-minute surgery for the improved shooting he fully expects fans will be witness to this season. Gay says he worked too damn hard in the off-season on his shooting for that to be the case. He says that on a light day he was putting up 300 shots but said it was an everyday thing for him. “I worked a lot,” he said. “Every day I was committed to becoming a better shooter.” Casey is of the firm belief that eye surgery is only going to be part of the reason Gay comes back and improves on the .416 shooting percentage he had a year ago, down from .455 the previous year.
- Bob Young of The Arizona Republic: Kendall Marshall will tell you that there is “no question” in his mind that he can succeed in the NBA. He’s got about one month to convince the Suns, who selected him with the 13th pick of the 2012 NBA draft. And Marshall has no time to waste, beginning at training camp, which opened Tuesday in Flagstaff, and during the club’s seven-game preseason schedule, which begins against Maccabi Haifa on Monday night at US Airways Center. Lance Blanks, the general manager who drafted Marshall, is gone. There also is a new coaching staff. And there is a Suns roster loaded with point guards and “combo” guards — players who can play off the ball or in a playmaking role. For Marshall, the witching hour falls on Halloween. That’s the NBA deadline for teams to exercise a team option in rookie salary-scale contracts for players drafted in the first round the previous year. First-round picks get a four-year deal, but only the first two years are guaranteed. So, teams must decide before a player’s second regular season begins whether to guarantee a third year. If the Suns don’t see enough from Marshall in the next month, they aren’t likely to exercise the option.